A lesson in patience – The hand that rocks the cradle

By Nicholas Asheshov

The municipal cuna-jardin in Urubamba is housed in part of the collapsing remains of a long-ago government hotel in the middle of the crowded wholesale market.

The two-year-olds play in what must have been a well-windowed sitting room. But the rest are gloomy little rooms lit by a neon strip or a hole knocked out of the roof.

The rest of this ruin is used as offices for the town gobernacion.

Cribs beside a makeshift kitchen allow two- and three-year-olds to flop down for a siesta. Down below an ankle-deep pool of water from broken 50-year old pipes is close by two dim rooms full of quietly cheerful four- and five year olds.

“We’ve had the Defensa Civil here any amount of times,” Eliana Garcia, the school’s Directora tells me on a visit this past week. “Their reports declare yet again that it’s dangerous.”

But there is an immediate heart-warming contrast between the clapped-out building and the competent bustle of the handful of teachers and 120 kids. You have to suppose that one of the lessons the children, from lactantes of three months to lively boys and girls of four and five, learn is how to make do and get on with each other.

I know this place well. A decade ago my wife and I brought our own expensive three-year-old daughter, Tany, here every day. It was the only place for toddlers in town but, much more, it was the kindness she was shown by the overworked and underpaid teachers like Eliana and by Yasmina Concha, made up for the dismal facilities. Yasmina went on to become Tany’s madrina and an old family chum.

Tany, today a citified MP3 teenager, goes back to her first alma mater as an ayudante when she’s home for the holidays.

Like us and perhaps even more so, today’s mothers and fathers are for sure grateful for somewhere to dump their kids during the morning. The mothers, Eliana and Yasmina tell me, all have jobs, some in the market or in stores, some in offices. A handful are single-mother student teachers.

They leave bottles of powdered and, sometimes, genuine, mother’s milk. The toddlers bring along lunchboxes.

Eliana, a quietly-spoken get-on-with-it 40-something who has been in charge here for years, talks knowledgeably about the ministry curriculum which requires ‘stimulus’ for three-month-old babies and, for instance, counting up to at least 12 for the four- and five-year-olds. “They all get at least to 10,” Luzmarina, one of the teachers, says.

Most kindergarten and primary teachers I’ve talked to find the official curriculum itself quite good with its new efforts to go beyond old-style rote-learning to think-learning.

But still everyone agrees that public education is awful, as bad as it gets in the civilized world.

In a study, ¿Para Quién Trabajan? Médicos y Maestros del Sector Público del Perú, published by the Instituto del Peru a few months ago, Richard Webb and Sofia Valencia declare that “Providers, bureaucrats, politicians and union leaders have accommodated to a status quo of low wages, lax discipline, falling entry standards and inadequate levels of effort.”

The study adds that this is “irreversible” unless something “exogenous” turns up.

The patience needed by Eliana Garcia to cope with dozens of other people’s infants in a dungeon is nothing to what she requires to cope with officialdom.

Eliana takes me a few blocks up the main street to where the new cuna-jardin is being built on an 850m2 site. Half a dozen workmen are moving around. It looks as though it’s perhaps 20% done. “They keep on delivering the wrong materials and taking them away again,” Eliana says.

The foundation stone was laid, with speeches, a year ago, Eliana tells me.

In municipal budget discussions “the new coliseo always wins,” Eliana says.

The walls for the new cuna-jardin show a dull ministry-mandated building with windows starting at maybe 1.70m above what’s budgeted to be a bare cement floor. Not even a tall visitor can see over them to the snow peaks of the cordillera.

“Maybe the ministry thinks that the children shouldn’t be distracted,” Eliana says.

Eliana tells me enthusiastically, with the Maestro de Obras standing by: “Up there’s the second floor, for the Administration.”

But the maestro immediately says, “There’s no second floor. My contract is just for a one-story building.”

Eliana begins to protest -“I’ve got an Acta!” –but quickly stops..

“I’ll go and talk to the architecto en el municipio.”

“You do that,” the maestro says.


Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Nov. 22, 2008

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